The Medici family is synonymous to the Italian Renaissance. They made Florence into the hub of the Humanist movement in Italy and Southern Europe. This extremely wealthy family of bankers managed to become the unofficial rulers of the city through business and political manoeuvring. The Medicis have always been patrons of the arts and helped launch the careers of some of the greatest artists of the Renaissance: Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Botticelli and many more.
Between the 15th and 17th century, the Medicis built and enjoyed villas scattered around Florence. These properties were used as hunting lodges and summer residences to escape the Florentine heat. They served more than one purpose. On a practical level, the villas served as working farms and were a means to control the agricultural activities of the area. On a more symbolic level, they were a way for the Medici to show off their wealth and artistic flair. Renaissance gardens became as much of a status symbol as the villa itself and the art collection that filled it.
The Medici owned over 25 villas in Tuscany (find the complete list), a clear sign of the wealth and hegemony of the family. Of these 25 villas, 12 are on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Here is a small selection of interesting Medici villas to visit near Florence.
Villa di Castello
The villa is near Sesto Fiorentino and about a fifteen minutes drive from the center of Florence.
Villa di Castello has one of the most impressive Medici gardens. The cultivation of citrus trees started in the 15th century in Europe. Villa di Castello boast a collection of over 500 pots of lemon and orange trees, including dwarf ones. In the winter, the trees were moved to a heated greenhouse called limonaia which was common to most Medici villas. These greenhouses became the rage in all the royal residences across Europe.
Another feature of the garden is its grotto. This man-made cave was molded in limestone and decorated with a beautiful mosaic of stones and seashells. The back wall of the grotto has an impressive sculpture of different animals and a unicorn. The Herb garden, with its aromatic and medicinal herbs, as well as rare and exotic flowers, is also of note.
The gardens are open every day from 8.30 to 5.30. Visitors are only admitted in the garden until 5.00. Villa di Castello sometimes closes on certain days so make sure to call this number before you head out: + 39 055 452691.
Find opening times and contacts here.
Villa La Petraia
The Villa La Petraia is only 1 km away from Villa di Castello and the perfect opportunity to compare and contrast the styles and gardens of the two villas. The two villas were so close that a lot of furniture and even sculptures were passed from one site to the other.
The tower that still dominates the villa is a reminder that the building was originally fortified. Cardinal Ferdinando de Medici transformed it into a country residence to escape from the city. The land surrounding the villa was extremely rocky (hence the name “La Petraia” coming from the Italian word for stone, pietra) but after a monumental land overhaul, three terraces were created. The terraced effect gives the garden a pleasant gradual incline that ends with a breathtaking view of the Florence skyline.
The villa also has its fair share of beautiful things to see. Don’t miss the incredible inner courtyard covered in frescoes by Volterrano and Cosimo Daddi. In the 19th century this space was covered with a glass ceiling that has helped to preserve these incredible works of art. A cycle of 14 paintings by Dutch painter Giusto Utens depicts most of the important Medici villas. These paintings give great insight on how the villas and their gardens used to be at the time.
Villa La Petraia is always open except for some Italian bank holidays and on the second and third Monday of the month. Opening times vary depending on the season. Make sure you arrive one hour before closing time to be allowed in. Visitors can only access the villa under the supervision of a guide. Tours of the villa starts every hour so make sure to check the timetable or be ready to wait a little. Entrance to the garden and villa is free.
Find contacts and opening times here.
Villa di Poggio a Caiano
The villa is in the small town of Poggio a Caiano near Prato and about a 30 minutes drive from the center of Florence, depending on traffic.
If the crowning glory of Villa di Castello is its gardens, Villa di Poggio a Caiano is all about the villa. The current garden was a much later addition made in the 19th century.
The villa was built at the top of a hill and holds a strategic location on the road between Florence and Pistoia. Villa di Poggio a Caiano was commissioned by Lorenzo de’ Medici and became the perfect prototype for a noble’s country residence. Lorenzo de Medici was the first to conceive an organised agrarian space where harmony ruled. Giovanni de’ Medici, who became Pope Leo X, took over the construction of the villa at the death of his father, Lorenzo. The villa continued to be used and renovated well after the end of the Medici rule. The different styles of furnishings and decorations attest to the villa’s long standing history. When you visit the villa make sure to look out for some precious Renaissance frescoes made by famous artists of the time such as Pontormo.
Villa di Poggio a Caiano is always open except for some Italian bank holidays and on the second and third Monday of the month. Opening times vary depending on the season. Make sure you arrive one hour before closing time to be allowed in. A tour of the villa starts every hour so make sure to check the timetable or be ready to wait a little. Visits to the Still Life exhibit have to be booked in advance at this number: + 39 055 877012. There is no admittance fee for the garden, villa or exhibit.
Find contacts and opening times here.
Visiting Medici villas is not only a great way to get out of the bustling center of Florence but also an opportunity to find out more about one of Tuscany’s greatest families. Their stories are interwoven in the fabric of Renaissance history, art and philosophy.